An Open Letter to Undergraduates


So, you are either in college or about to enter college as a music major.  Congratulations!  College is the first major step on your path to becoming a serious singer.  Your experience will be somewhat different from many of your fellow students in other disciplines.  Being aware of potential pitfalls is important.  You need to understand how to maximize your learning experience and navigate the dangerous shoals of hundreds of musician egos.  This letter will offer some helpful advice for you, born out of my own personal experience in college and that of my colleagues.

Having the right teacher

The most important aspect of your undergraduate study by far is your technical study in voice.  You need to get a healthy grounding in technique and this is all dependent on the faculty member with whom you study.  Despite what the college or university tells you, all faculty members are not the same and many are not equally qualified to teach.  You need to do your homework and do your very best to get into the studio of the finest teacher you possibly can.  Definitely research and figure out (1) who the several best teachers are, (2) what type of technical approach they have and (3) which one would be the ideal fit for you.  Then push with finesse to get into that teacher’s studio.  There is no place for false or real modesty here.  You deserve to have the best training.  A mediocre teacher can waste your time, while a poor or inexperienced teacher can build bad habits into your voice that will set your technical progress back for years.  Fight to get excellent technical training!  Some singers even attend the schools to study with the voice teacher of their choice and others leave schools that do not have helpful teachers for them.

Balancing your education

It is very tempting in college to focus most of your time and attention on your own vocal development, repertoire and performances, but that would be a serious mistake.  Those things are very important, but as a young singer, you are vocally very limited.  Singing itself will take on primary importance for the majority of your life, so give yourself a little breathing space now.  College is your opportunity to explore what the musical world has to offer, including many delights of which you are not even currently aware.  Make sure to take full advantage of what all of your classes have to teach you and get a balanced education.  Explore the fascinating areas of music theory and history, try a conducting class, learn as much about the vocal repertoire as you can, study your languages, practice the piano at least 30 minutes a day and allot plenty of time for any academic classwork.  If possible, squeeze in an academic class here or there on a topic that really fascinates you, even if it is outside of your curriculum.  Try your very best to get the most out of every single class you have.  Every day in college is filled with learning opportunities on multiple levels.  Keep thinking, listening and analyzing and you will find more fascinating information than you ever dreamed existed.

While in college, take advantage of the wonderful talents of your instrumental colleagues.  Ask to sit in on orchestra, band and small ensemble rehearsals as much as possible.  Attend concerts and listen attentively to the music.  Work with different pianists just for the fun of it.  Sing in different small ensembles with instrumentalists.  Stretch yourself into new territory.  Singers can learn a huge amount from instrumentalists and vice versa.  And since singers have to work with orchestras, it would behoove you get a good understanding of orchestration, the qualities of the different instruments and how to follow orchestral conductors.  This is the time in your life that you are surrounded by musicians who are willing to volunteer their services for no charge!  Take advantage of that fact and be the one to initiate a free-flow exchange of ideas and information.

Getting theatrical training

While in college, take the time to make your way to the theater department and find in it your second home.  So many singers do not have any formal acting training and that lack can cause a real roadblock in an otherwise promising career.  Opera is theater and singers need to be able to sing as well as act, especially nowadays.  Credible acting requires a personal exploration of your body, experiences and emotions.  If you never do the necessary work to explore those and don’t possess considerable natural acting talent, it is likely that your acting will be less than ideal.  I highly recommend taking several acting classes, even if they are for no credit.  If you can’t take classes, make friends with an acting major and buy him/her coffee or lunch once a week in exchange for a private acting session.  Do crazy acting exercises and loosen yourself up.  Learn how to build a character with a detailed history, specific motives and goals.  Absorb all you can about stagecraft, blocking, movement, even costumes and lighting.  This information is all directly applicable to stage work for singers. You can even volunteer to work backstage.  By learning as many of these skills as you can early on, you will have more opportunity to hone and polish your acting over time and be the better actor for it.

Dealing with the department

For undergraduates in most other disciplines, the college experience is quite different than for music majors.  Other students take courses in a number of various disciplines, meeting a different group of people in every class.  Only when they begin to specialize in later years do they start to run into a few of the same people over and over again.

Music majors often have the opposite experience.  Because the nature of the curriculum, they end up in the same classes with many of the same people for years, as well as seeing the same group of singers in chorus, master classes and concerts.  It is extremely important to develop positive relationships with your colleagues from the start and to repair them if they go sour.

Being a good colleague

It is extremely important that you learn how to be good colleague to your fellow singers in college.  Learning how to do so is a process, but definitely engage in the process and think about how you interact with others.  Without being fake, make an effort to be friendly and kind to everyone you meet.  It is challenging, but try to be nice even to those who aren’t nice to you.  Realize that their attitude reflects their own feelings about themselves and very little about you personally.  And sometimes people just have bad days.  Be generous and forgiving.  It’s like being in a family – you have to learn to forgive and let things go.  After all, these are people you will have to get along with for years.  This is excellent practice for dealing with coaches, managers, singers, conductors, etc.  People will always say inappropriate and unkind things, sometimes out of malice and sometimes out of carelessness.  Often, it is better to ignore unkind comments and move on with your day as unaffected as possible.

Of course, you want to make friends in college, but try to become friends based on positive aspects of commonality in school, life experience, etc.  There are always people who want to grouse and complain, drawing others into their web of negativity.  This will not be helpful for you in the long-run.  You are at school to learn as much as you possibly can about everything related to music and singing.  That is a huge amount of information.  Hanging out with too many negative people, while it might release some emotions, could end up making you negative, as well as less focused and productive.  Keep your eyes on the prize….

You will perform often in college, either in studio recitals, master classes, departmental recitals or solo recitals, as will your colleagues.  It can be an extremely hurtful thing to be pointedly ignored by colleagues after a performance, so make sure not to do that to others.  Be diplomatic and find something positive to say about everyone who performed when you see them afterwards.  If you liked someone’s performance, just be honest and genuine about it.  If you didn’t, try not to lie outright, but focus on what that person did do will.  You can always still smile and say something like, “Great job!  I particularly enjoyed your interpretation, your high notes or how you handled the fast section,” for example.  That person will appreciate your positivity and will be much more likely to return the favor to you.  You and your colleagues are all in the same boat – putting yourselves out there to be judged while still in your vocal infancy.  It is a difficult situation and potentially very painful for the ego.  Kindness to others and to yourself should be the order of the day!

One important benefit of being a good colleague is that you build up your network with other musicians.  College is a wonderful opportunity to meet lots of different types of musicians who can recommend you for gigs and singing opportunities later on.  It is well worth your while to reach out to as many fellow musicians as possible and build up a positive relationship with them, even just as an acquaintance.  Take the time to have a friendly chat in the hallways, go to their performances, invite them to your performances and show them that you respect their hard work and dedication to music.  If they have a good collegial relationship with you, then they will be more likely to mention your name whenever a singer is needed.

Staying apolitical

Because of the small, communal feel, many music departments can take on the flavor of high school with cliques and divisions between the “talented” students and the “less talented” ones.   This can be extremely painful for truly talented student unfairly labeled “untalented”.  In these cases, you have to take the long view.  College is just the first step on the path for any serious singers and only one part of the learning process.  No one will come out of college with a finished voice (unless they happen to be older) and those who have to work for their techniques gain more technical insight than singers with “natural” voices.  Try not to let any labels affect you.  Concentrate on your goals and keep taking small steps every day towards achieving them.

Be careful about sharing your opinions of other musicians in the department – gossip has a strange way of getting back to the wrong person.  Also, when you make negative comments about others, it implies to the people to whom you are speaking that you might very well make negative comments about them, too.  It is a much better policy just to focus on your own work while being friendly and positive to everyone.  Yes, there will always be those people who are consistently unwelcoming, even to a friendly person, as well as those who make judgments about your voice.  Read my previous article, Protecting the Singer Ego, for advice on dealing with those types of people.

There are sometimes departmental politics playing out on the faculty and administration level that also trickle down and affect the students detrimentally.  Certain teacher’s students might get all of the good roles in the opera or solos in the chorus.  This is unfair and frustrating, but try not to let it affect you.  Always be respectful to the faculty and no matter what happens, never make critical remarks about faculty members to anyone other than a good friend you trust implicitly!  What you say could easily get back to the individual.  This is someone who will sit on juries and help decide your grades for the remainder of your time there.  Revenge is all too easy in such a subjective field like music, so keep yourself out of the firing line.

Present yourself well

How you present yourself as a singer is always very important and that goes for your time in college, too.  As a singer, you are your instrument.  There is nothing to look at when you are on stage but you.  Therefore, what you wear matters much more than for instrumentalists.  Take the opportunity while in college to get used to presenting yourself in a way that is attractive, polished and appropriate for every single performance!  You may think that a master class or studio recital isn’t important enough to merit dressing up, but it is.  Your appearance shows how much you respect yourself and the performance you are doing.  That has a palpable influence upon the people who hear you, including faculty members, who will correspondingly take you more seriously.  I am not suggesting anything outrageous here, like a formal gown or tuxedo for a monthly voice department recital.  But you should have a couple of nice outfits you can wear when you are singing at school that follow the guidelines below.  For solo recitals, make it fancier.

  • You should be neat, clean and well-groomed
  • All clothes should be the right size for you and not too tight or too loose.  You should be able to breathe easily and walk with a full, comfortable stride
  • The cut of your clothes should be flattering for your body
  • All clothes should be ironed and wrinkle-free
  • Shoes should be clean and shined
  • Your clothes should never, ever be distracting, e.g. low bodice, spaghetti straps, big prints, etc.  Ladies should have at least cap sleeves and it is better to cover part of the upper arms
  • Symmetry is usually better than asymmetry
  • Less is more.  The goal is elegant simplicity that makes the audience see you
  • Ladies should choose colors that flatter your skin tone, but are not too light or washed-out.  Strong, clear colors work well.  Try to avoid all black, if possible.
  • Ladies should wear skirts or dresses.  Sorry, but they simply look much, much better than pants on stage.  The only exception would be for mezzos singing pants roles and even they can still wear skirts
  • Ladies’ skirts have to be below the knee!  When on stage, a shorter skirt can be too revealing to audience members in the seats.  It’s not a peep show….
  • Ladies’ shoes should be a classic style and cover the foot.  Open-toed shoes and sandals are not appropriate
  • Ladies’ shoes should have a slight heel, but not be too high.  Between ½” and 2” is a good range.  Make sure you can still breathe well when singing in higher heels
  • Ladies should wear a non-distracting color of hose.  Flesh color is always a good choice
  • Men should wear a collared, long-sleeved, white or light-colored shirt with no undershirt showing and the shirt tucked in.  A jacket and tie should be worn for larger audiences for a more formal look
  • Men should always wear belts
  • Men should wear dark socks and dress shoes
  • Dark slacks are preferable for men
  • Jewelry on women should be simple.  Men should not wear jewelry.  Rings tend to be distracting and are discouraged
  • Women should wear attractive makeup that brings out their features.  Fad makeup is discouraged.  Lipstick should be darker than actual lip color.  Men should normally not wear makeup, unless in a staged role


Listen, listen, listen

An extremely crucial, but underrated skill for singers is the ability to listen critically to voices and gain a significant amount of information from the sound.  This skill takes years to develop and usually requires guidance to achieve.  However, college is the perfect time to do as much listening as possible and work on cultivating your ear.   Spend time every day listening to different singers and pay close attention to what you hear.  Listen to the great singers who had legendary careers.  Listen to other professional singers who did not become quite as famous.  Can you tell the difference between the two levels of singers?  Listen to your colleagues at school with a critical ear, as well, but don’t share your opinions with anyone other than a very trusted friend.  Not everyone will understand that you aren’t being mean, but instead are just trying to train your ear to the highest level.  You need to develop the ability to recognize the different, required qualities in the best classical singing and note when they are absent.  This is a huge topic that is outside of the scope of this article, but I will address it at a later time.

Studying other subjects

Despite all of the hard work you put into your studies, the truth is that any music degree below a doctorate is worth very little outside of the musical world.  Getting a major in another subject is a prudent safeguard for insuring that you will be able to get a decent-paying job to help support yourself and pay for your expensive vocal training after you graduate.  It will mean extra work and maybe even an extra year in school, but having a double major will open up significant opportunities to you that would be closed with just a music degree.  If you don’t want to get a double major, think of specific classes you can take while in school that would be helpful to you later on, like programming, business or accounting classes.


Being in college is an exciting time with tremendous opportunities for growth and exposure to new music, ideas and sounds.  Use the opportunity wisely and immerse yourself in the experience, while maintaining a sense of perspective.  College is just one part of your amazing journey as a singer.  Good or bad, this too will pass….


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